Lately it seems like I’ve come across a lot of moms who are concerned about environmental issues. I think a lot of people start to think about these concerns for the first time when they have children. Partly, of course, it’s because you start to really think about what the earth will be like for future generations when those future generations have a face. But I think it’s also because moms have to deal with environmental issues more than most people. Moms need convenience. They buy food in kid-sized servings with lots of packaging; they are constantly tempted by more plastic toys; and, of course, they deal with the diaper problem. And so my second way to be an extreme green is geared for moms: it’s the extreme environmentalist answer to the great diaper debate.
My biggest environmental concern when I was pregnant was, without a doubt, the diaper question. I searched endlessly for an answer to the debate of cloth vs. disposable. No matter how many life-cycle studies I saw (most of them funded by Proctor and Gamble, who owns Pampers) claiming that “compostable” disposable diapers are actually better for the environment than cloth, I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the argument that something that’s meant to be thrown away was better for the environment than something that could be endlessly reused. And besides, cloth is cheaper. But the idea of actually washing poopy diapers myself for the next three years was intimidating at best, and in the midst of Atlanta’s water crisis, I couldn’t help but wonder whether maybe disposables might be better in our situation, after all. And the studies did say that energy and water use is more efficient with a diaper service than with home washing–but there were no diapers services in Atlanta at the time I was pregnant. Believe me. I looked. (Now that I’m an accomplished cloth diapering mom who loves washing diapers, of course this has started up.)
And then one day, as I searched the internet, I came across a link about “diaper-free babies.” Diaper free? I was intrigued. I clicked, and soon I knew I’d found the answer. Like every riddle, the solution is obvious once you see it, but it requires a paradigm shift, an entirely new way of thinking about the problem.
As it turns out, “diaper free” is a bit of an exaggeration. According to Ingrid Bauer, the author of Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene, babies who are “diaper-free” from birth nevertheless continue to need backup at least until they’re around four or five months old. In countries where diapers are unavailable–which actually includes most of the world–that backup might be as simple as an extra layer of clothing, or a towel. For western moms, it’s usually a cloth diaper. But still. Compare that to the average American child, who’s wearing diapers full-time until the age of three.
At first, it seemed too good to be true. According to Bauer, you can learn to know when your baby needs to pee. When you think it’s time, you just take them to a toilet (or a bowl, or a bush, or any location you choose), hold them in a squatting position, and make a hissing sound, and they will quickly learn to recognize that as a cue for eliminating. Some people call it “elimination communication,” because it’s not really potty training at all, but rather a two-way process of communicating in which the parent learns to recognize the baby’s signals and the baby learns to understand the parent’s cues. Much like breastfeeding, in which the mom learns to recognize the baby’s signals for hunger, and the baby learns to latch on and suck. It makes so much sense, and yet it seemed so outrageous and difficult to me. I, after all, wore diapers till I was nearly four!
But, after reading extensively, I decided to try this strange practice. What, after all, did I have to lose? I got myself a stash of cloth diapers and a tiny washing machine and drying rack to use as back up, so I could wash diapers as efficiently as possible. And I figured that even if I only saved one or two diapers a day by trying to “catch pees” in the toilet, well, that was one less diaper to wash.
And after over a year of trying it full-time, I can say with confidence that “EC’ing” is every bit as easy as Bauer claimed. Yes, I have gotten peed on–but what mom hasn’t? Yes, I’ve gotten pee on my floor–but that would happen with potty training at any age, so not a question of whether, only of when. And I’ve also discovered that the benefits of this method go far beyond the environmental.
From as young as a month old, it became a rare oddity for my baby to poo in her diaper. At two months old, she was frequently staying dry for four or five hours at a time, and I could sometimes use as few as two or three diapers a day. Now at thirteen months, she frequently wears underwear at home and usually only pees in her diaper two or three times a day. Although things like teething and developmental milestones always cause a break in our success at staying dry, I’ve never had to wash diapers more than every two or three days–which is less often than most moms need to wash clothes. So the environmental benefits are obvious: I’m saving water, I’m saving trees, and I’m putting waste where it belongs. Now if only I had a composting toilet…
But the benefits, as I said, go far beyond that. It wasn’t until I gave birth that I realized how disconnected I’ve been, for most of my life, from my body. In our culture, bodily waste is something shameful and gross, something we avoid at all costs and think about as little as possible. But the reality is that our waste is part of a marvelous design. We eat food that grows from the land, and our bodies process the food, and what we don’t need comes out of our bodies and–ideally–goes back to the land. Becoming aware–or, in my baby’s case, simply staying aware–of this process is part of living in harmony with how we are created, and the world we were created in. It’s not for nothing that Genesis tells us we were formed from the dirt.
We’ve developed a version of Christianity that seeks to gloss over the material side of creation. But the most beautiful thing about Christianity–something that sets it apart, in my mind, from many other religions–is the fact that it doesn’t gloss over material things. Only in Christianity was God truly made man. We don’t often think about Jesus going to the bathroom. But surely there wasn’t anything “dirty” about His waste.
And, too, there is a spiritual discipline in learning to be so aware of my baby’s needs. Many spiritual fathers have spoken of the importance of being fully in the present moment as a spiritual discipline. And all parents know that the mere act of caring for a child, of serving them unselfishly, offers opportunities for spiritual growth. But being aware of when my baby needs to go to the bathroom requires a focus on the present that is unlike that required by any of my other tasks in caring for her. You can’t lose focus, even for a moment. You can never stop caring, never stop being aware.
And yet–as with all spiritual disciplines, it only sounds hard until you try it. It is hard, yes, especially in a culture where no one else is doing it. But changing poopy diapers isn’t exactly my idea of easy, either. And communicating with my baby is fun. Nobody ever fought with their partner for the chance to change a poopy diaper. But “peeing the baby” can be a thrill. Babysitters want to try it. Friends are intrigued. Family wants to watch, as though it’s some kind of party trick. And even though plenty of my friends think I’m crazy and extreme, the truth is that, as with every valuable discipline, the rewards of EC are much, much greater than the challenge it presents. I mention this practice in my list of ways to be an extreme green because in our culture, it is pretty extreme. But I wish it were normal. After a year of doing it, it feel like normal to me: I can’t imagine raising a baby any other way.